'The Messenger'-World Refugee Day celebrated in Pankisi, but security fears prevent Chechens from returning home


<a href="http://www.messenger.com.ge/">The Messenger</a>, Thursday, June 22, 2006 #115 (1135)</p> <p><span style="font-weight: bold;">World Refugee Day celebrated in Pankisi, but security fears prevent Chechens from returning home</span> by Eka Basilaya</p> <p>Songs and verses in the Georgian, Chechen and Kist languages rang throughout the notorious Pankisi gorge in celebration of World Refugee Day on June 20.</p> <p>The amphitheatre of the Pankisi village of Duisi, beautifully situated on a slope in the middle of the gorge, was thronging with people. Some were dressed in traditional costumes waiting for their turn to take to the stage; others were watching the concert from tents, hiding from the blazing sun.</p> <p>The concert in honour of World Refugee Day was organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Association of Georgia (UNAG) and Danish Refugee Council (DRC) together with Chechen refugees residing in Pankisi gorge.</p> <p>The celebration started a day earlier on June 19 when Chechen refugees, who have been residing in Pankisi gorge for the best part of a decade, organized an exhibition of hand-made objects d'art on Shardeni street in Tbilisi.</p> <p>The next day the celebrants moved to the Duisi amphitheatre for a big concert with dances, verses and songs.</p> <p>World Refugee Day, which started in 2000, was marked for the fourth time in Georgia. The theme of the celebration varies from year to year. This year "Hope" was selected as the theme "to pay tribute to unwavering hope of the world's refugees and displaced persons." Over 120 countries in the world celebrate World Refugee Day.</p> <p>The Pankisi Gorge, which lies on Georgia's border with Russia's troubled Chechnya region, used to be a major source of conflict between Russia and Georgia. Chechen rebels and Arab extremists used the gorge as a base and hiding place, which led Russia to threaten military intervention in 2002.</p> <p>Thousands of Chechens fled the conflict in Chechnya in 1999, seeking shelter in neighbouring Georgia. Most of them had close relations with the ethnic Chechens of Pankisi gorge, or Kists as they are called in Georgia, who gave them shelter. Those who had no such opportunities were compelled to look for places to stay in abandoned houses and collective centers.</p> <p>The Minister of Refugees and Resettlement Giorgi Kheviashvili says about 1600 Chechen refugees live in Georgia, 80 percent of whom are women and children, according to the 2005 refugee census data.</p> <p>International legislation requires the government to provide asylum and assistance to the refugees. However, as Georgia has to deal with hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the UN has undertaken the responsibility to help the Pankisi region cope by providing humanitarian assistance, educational and health programs for the Chechen refugees.</p> <p>"Today is a day when we cherish the courage of the people living under these grave circumstances… despite the advancements of the human race there are a lot of people who cannot live in their homes just because they have certain political and religious believes," Resident Representative of the UNHCR Naveed Hussein told The Messenger. He called on the international community to tackle the problems that create refugees, so that people could go back to their homes and live in peace.</p> <p>Despite some planned projects that may alleviate the situation, employment opportunities in Pankisi are scarce, and most of the refugees live in very poor conditions.</p> <p>Nonetheless, only a small minority of refugees express the desire to return to Chechnya. Most say they will only return to Chechnya when the political situation stabilises, and their security is guaranteed.</p> <p>Malika Sadikova, Head of the Committee of Mothers' Solidarity of the Chechen republic of Ichkeria, said despite being banished from her home she is still happy as at least she feels safe and securein Pankisi.</p> <p>"We are not threatened, nobody bombs us, we are not abducted, we leave in peace here-this is more than enough," Sadikova told the paper.</p> <p>Shahnazar Abdulov, 40, lives in a collective refugee centre in Duisi with his wife and son. The biggest concern for him is that he misses his home country. However he says he is happy.</p> <p>"I am not a warrior but I am part of the resistance, I long for the independence of my country, I want freedom," he said.</p> <p>"I would rather live in Georgia and become a Georgian citizen to live under the Russian administration," Abdulov told the paper.</p> <p>"Hope never dies, only people pass away; I hope one day I will return," Abdulov said.